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World Class Phones

Smartphones combine communication, organization and entertainment features in one small package that won't overfill your pocket
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

An ordinary cell phone just doesn't deliver the communication security blanket I need anymore when venturing out into the cold, cruel world. I'm not the type who blathers away just to fill life's idle moments, but I pretty much need to carry a cell phone at all times for those Timmy's-fallen-in-the-well crises in my business and personal life. That said, most of my vital communication today is conducted via e-mail, and if I try gallivanting around town for a full day without access to my inbox, my nerves start to jangle. That's when paying for an Internet café seat next to an overripe student backpacker starts to sound appealing.

Which leads me to the smartphone, a hybrid combining standard cell phone capabilities with a miniature laptop's worth of personal organization, communication and, often, entertainment features.

When this double play was first attempted several years ago, the result was an electronic brick, full of potential but far too large and heavy to carry comfortably. I've checked out each generation of improved Franken-phones as they hit the market, but have never been entirely satisfied.

Hence, for the past two years, I've relied on an idiosyncratic solution that's effective but tough to recommend: a small dedicated cell phone for voice communication, a BlackBerry 7230 for wireless e-mail and a Dell Axim PDA for personal organization. The slender, 4.8-ounce BlackBerry does a wonderful job receiving and sending e-mail, with a decent color screen and a battery that lasts about a week without a charge. It also incorporates a built-in phone, but I don't like the voice quality or the feel of holding a flat pad up to my head to make a call-my plain-Jane $50 Samsung phone handles voice communication much better. And while both the phone and the BlackBerry have built-in address books, the PDA offers far superior personal organizer features, lets me display and edit documents on the road, and provides a surprisingly useful Web browser paired with built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. Equally important, it lets me play audiobooks downloaded from Audible.com. I've found that the perfect antidote to flying in coach for six hours at a stretch is the primal pleasure of having someone read you a story.

So…I have three devices and no quality compromises in their various functions. On the other hand, I have a clumsy bag full of gadgets, each of which requires its own charger when traveling, and two separate wireless service bills for voice and data. As the new year dawned, full of promise and portent, I embarked on a quest to evaluate the latest and greatest smartphones in hopes of finding the One Gadget to Rule Them All. Herein lies my tale.

The BlackBerry Family
As this issue goes to press, the future of Research In Motion (RIM), the creators of the BlackBerry handheld devices, remains in limbo due to a lawsuit over purported patent infringement. Whatever the merits of the case, I'm rooting strongly for RIM to come through unscathed, since the company has brought extraordinary innovation to the software, hardware and service sides of the portable communication equation.

The BlackBerry system pioneered the "push" model of roaming e-mail receipt, and is still its most successful proponent. Ordinarily, when you want to see what torments await in your inbox, you have to send a request for your e-mail to the server where it's stored. With the BlackBerry system, on the other hand, mail is forwarded to your device automatically. You don't have to stop and fetch your e-mail-just glance at the screen and you see what's arrived. What's more, the system works whether there's a big honking corporate IT department serving your every digital whim (the systems folks can run secure BlackBerry e-mail software on their in-house servers) or if you're an individual trying to maintain an e-mail lifeline on the road (a Web-based mail client makes managing your BlackBerry activities simple).

The familiar wide-screen, slender BlackBerry device format is now available, with minor differences, from most cellular service providers, in the BlackBerry 7200 and 7700 series. All now support voice as well as data service, with adequate color screens, backlit keyboards, personal organizer software, limited Web browsing and "trackwheel" control for one-handed operation. They run about $250 to $300 with a new service contract and still represent a solid choice if e-mail is the be-all and end-all of your handheld needs.

Recently, though, RIM has taken a bold new direction in its device design, delivering much brighter, higher-resolution screens, Bluetooth connectivity for wireless headsets and built-in speakerphones. The BlackBerry 7100 series launched this new approach along with another innovation: a more phone-like size and shape. BlackBerrys have traditionally been squat palm-width devices, shaped more like a memo pad than a regular cell phone. The 7100 series changes that, with a tall narrow shape that feels better in your hand when making a call. The diet plan also means a narrower screen, but thanks to the move to a brightly backlit high-res display, the ease of reading e-mail on-screen isn't compromised. The rub comes in the radical keyboard design strategy. To squeeze everything into a new, svelte body, RIM decided to place two letters on each key. I know teenagers who can rapidly double- and triple-tap standard phone keys to send instant messages on standard cell phones, but for impatient grown-ups that sort of typing spells a quick trip to phone-throwing frustration. RIM softened the blow somewhat with its SureType word recognition software. which guesses what you're trying to type with surprising accuracy-just keep pressing the keys, without worrying about what actually shows up on-screen, and when your pattern resembles a word, the phone inserts it. As an e-mail addict, I want the security of the one-letter-per-key thumb-typing experience that BlackBerry taught me to love in the first place. However, if you're more phone-centric, with only a minor in e-mail, the 7100 models are easy to carry and inexpensive compared with other smartphones.

My own affections lie with one of the latest additions to the BlackBerry family, the 8700c. Basically, RIM took the innovative features of the 7100 and combined them with the full-width layout of a classic BlackBerry. But the appeal goes beyond the eye candy of a beautiful screen. The 8700c also includes a more powerful processor and support for Cingular's high-speed EDGE network, making e-mail and Web surfing a notably speedier proposition. The keyboard layout has also improved, with standard call and end call keys. The 8700c still has room for improvement: audio quality is just so-so, those who rely on popular instant messaging services are out of luck, and the entertainment value is low (no music or video and limited games, though photos look good on-screen). For accessing e-mail and the Web on the road, though, nobody does it better.


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